San Jose Mercury News (CA)

June 23, 2002


An 8-year-old Saratoga girl's struggle with a rare disease has touched hundreds of people, who have sent money, cards and in some cases stories of their own battles with the condition that has left Kaitlyn Langstaff unable to speak or see -- at least for now.

Kaitlyn has been in intensive care at four different hospitals since becoming ill April 5. She was moved from Lucile Salter Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford to Santa Clara Valley Medical Center a week ago. She faces months of rehabilitation and numerous surgeries.

''She's making strides toward getting stronger,'' Kaitlyn's mother, Kerry Langstaff, said. ''We'll still be dealing with long-term issues of her vision, her voice, her lungs and her airways, but we think we can get her strong and functioning in other ways.''

After the Mercury News reported on Kaitlyn's struggle June 4, the family received hundreds of cards, letters, offers of help -- and a surprise visitor.

Vecepia ''Vee'' Towery of Hayward showed up in the hospital to answer a question about a hugely popular television show that Kaitlyn had asked in the article: ''Who Won 'Survivor'?''

''Kaitlyn,'' she said, ''I won 'Survivor'.''

Kaitlyn's illness, an extreme allergic reaction to common medications, came at a difficult time for her parents; they both lost their jobs a year ago at the height of the Silicon Valley recession.

Some readers, like one elderly woman who dropped off a jar of quarters, donated money. Others, like Santa Clara University's women's softball team, gave gifts. Team members have invited Kaitlyn's 11-year-old sister, Kelly, to be their guest at their softball camp.

Stanford University's women's volleyball team sent an autographed jersey -- No. 8 in honor of Kaitlyn's age -- and an offer for Kelly to attend the team's camp this summer. Next summer, the team wants Kaitlyn and Kelly to attend the camp.

The education department of Apple computers donated an iBook laptop so that when Kaitlyn is able, she can type in ''Hi, Mom,'' and the computer will speak for her. Kaitlyn's father, Bradshaw Langstaff, used to work at Apple.

Even before the Langstaffs appeared in the Mercury News, scores of West Valley residents stepped forward to help the family because they have volunteered in many school and community activities -- and done so much for others through the years, their friends said.

''A lot of people are reconnecting with the Langstaffs and saying they had made a difference in their lives in the past and wanted to help them now,'' said Pat Thomas, a family friend who along with Susan Harvell is helping the Langstaffs with all of the mail.

Kerry Langstaff said she and her husband were amazed at the response. ''Even though we live in a big city, everyone's really kind of come together, across all walks of life, for Kaitlyn,'' she said.

The letters include one from 8-year-old Kayla Cromer of Morgan Hill, who wrote Kaitlyn about the similarities in their lives: Both were born in February, both have a name starting with K, both have a goldfish, a dog and a Christmas kitten, both have been very ill and in the hospital, both have blond hair and blue eyes, both are second-graders and ''my parents don't have a lot either, but we do have something -- love, just like your family.''

Because both parents were laid off from their Silicon Valley marketing jobs, the family has been without income for a year. When Kaitlyn got sick, Kerry had just landed a new job and the family planned to celebrate on a camping trip in Yosemite.

They made it as far as Fresno, when Kaitlyn showed symptoms of the flu.

She was hospitalized that weekend and diagnosed with toxic epidermal necrolysis, a severe form of Stevens-Johnson Syndrome. It causes lesions and blisters, which resemble second-degree burns, inside and outside of the body.

She was airlifted three days later to Childrens Hospital Los Angeles, where she and her parents spent 44 days. Kelly flew down on the weekends.

Kaitlyn's condition is so severe that her parents have remained by her side around the clock. And Kaitlyn's need for support as she tries to get strong enough to start rehabilitation means Kerry Langstaff has to pass up a job she landed this spring because the company wants her to start full time in two weeks.

To try to avoid having to sell their home, the Langstaffs hope to find marketing consulting jobs so they can have flexible work hours but still be with Kaitlyn.

Despite fears about whether she will be able to see and speak if corneal transplants and other surgeries down the road don't work, Kaitlyn made some progress last week. On Friday, she went outside briefly in a wheelchair with a portable oxygen tank. And if her parents can work it out, they hope to reunite Kaitlyn with their dog, Maddy, for a few minutes today.

''Our focus now is on her recovery, to eventually bring her home,'' Kerry Langstaff said.

Kaitlyn's friends feel the same.

Late last week, three of them -- Alexandra, Kestrel and Morgan -- stopped by Kaitlyn's home while Kerry Langstaff was there to pick up some things.

''We sat in Kaitlyn's room and talked,'' she said. ''They held her teddy bears and told me about Barbie games they used to play and what they missed most about her. They don't care if she can't see, they just want her to come home.''